Most travellers visit Thailand for the beautiful islands and coastal beaches but Chiang Mai in Thailand’s highlands is a fantastic place to experience. Although only of moderate altitude, it’s more northerly position means that it is cooler most of the year than Phuket or Bangkok. It’s verdant beauty and elegant dignity make Chiang Mai a unique place to visit.
Chiang Mai is surrounded by lush mountains and forest, is located 700 kilometres north of Bangkok and sits on the Ping River. The city was founded in 1296 CE as the capital of Lan Na, a highland kingdom in the region of what is now northern Burma, northern Thailand and northern Laos.
This is a great place for reflection!
Before the modern era, the city could only be reached via a treacherous journey that involved travel via the river and trekking by elephant. In the 1920s, a railroad link speeded the development of the region. Today, you’ll probably fly into Chiang Mai International Airport. While there are a few regional international flights, if you’re flying from abroad you’ll usually connect through Bangkok. If you want an adventure, you can ride an overnight train from Bangkok. The airport is just a 10-15 minute ride from the city. Taxis are inexpensive but please consider the environment and board the efficient bus system that is even less expensive.
Here’s a Pro-tip: The air quality in March can be low because, just prior to the monsoon’s arrival, traditional farmers throughout the region (and even as far away as Indonesia) burn their fields to return much needed nutrients to the soil. Officials are trying to reduce or eliminate this practice but they are resisted by conservative rural forces. The best time to visit is December when the temperatures are perfect and the sky is generally clear.
You could visit Chiang Mai for a month and probably not see every interesting site. Here are my favourites:
- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – this is the city’s most famous temple and part if its emblem. The temple sits majestically on a mountain to the northwest of the city and offers fabulous views. It also contains a replica of the famous Emerald Buddha. The temple was completed in 1383, so not long after the formation of the capital.
- The Ruins of Wat Chedi Luang – also known as the “Temple of the Big Stupa”. These ruins are beautiful to admire. The temple used to house the famous Emerald Buddha which is the holiest religious symbol in Thailand.
- The Long Neck Karen Tribe – This ancient tribe was originally from Myanmar but fled to Thailand during the political unrest in the past. Visiting the tribal areas is an enlightening experience that allows you to witness their culture and life while also contributing to the sustainability of their way of life.
You’ll be up to your neck in culture!
- San Kamphaeng Road – This local market is excellent for amazing handcrafted goods and the marketplace stretches for over 10 kilometres.
- Doi Inthanon National Park – This wonderful park is just under two hours away from Chiang Mai. It covers an area of 48,240 hectares and contains the tallest mountain in Thailand. Apart from being able to see thousands of beautiful birds and other wildlife, the park also offers an array of fun activities:
- Hiking is amazing here, with the fresh mountain air and clear trails. Hire a guide and try the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail, which takes roughly 2 hours to complete.
- Visit beautiful waterfalls. My favourite has to be Mae Ya Waterfall. It is so impressive and offers the perfect photo opportunity.
- The Twin Pagodas are truly a sight to behold. Together, they are an iconic image of this national park. They are also known as the King and Queen Pagodas and they house beautiful relics amongst majestic gardens.
- Visit an Elephant Sanctuary – There are several properly licensed and ethically operated elephant sanctuaries throughout the region. Elephant Nature Park is my favourite because it provides excellent care to rescued elephants and strives to educate on conservation.
Bath time is always play time!
- River Rafting – Chiang Mai offer fun tours through the jungle on thrilling white-water rafting experiences. Brave the rapids for an experience you won’t soon forget.
- Cooking class – I always recommend taking a cooking class when visiting a fascinating region. It’s the best way to understand local foods, learn about the culture and take a skill home that you’ll enjoy later!
Here’s another Pro-tip: Chiang Mai has an abundance of fascinating and beautiful festivals. Probably the most well-known and admired is their celebration of Loy Krathong. If you are lucky to visit during the month of November, you can enjoy this beautiful light and lantern festival; a truly magical experience.
Chiang Mai offers up a great combination of classic Thai street food along with top restaurants and cafes. Here are a few of my favourites:
Night Bazaar – This brilliant market is on every evening and is full of cool souvenirs and, of course, street food stalls! Try local favourites including; Pad Thai, Gai Tod and Poh Pia Tod as you walk around this romantically lit shopping area.
- Khao Soi Mae Sai – This is the best spot to try North Thailand’s signature dish, Khao Soi. This restaurant is an unassuming place but has a stellar reputation for excellent quality. Khoa Soi consists of a coconut and curry flavoured soup filled with yellow egg noodles, chicken, crispy fried egg noodles, chopped red onions, pickled green mustard and a wedge of lime. It is simply wonderful!
Pad on down to the market for a Pad Thai!
- David’s Kitchen – This romantic French restaurant is a luxurious venue. The quality of their dishes is second to none as is their service. I recommend their wonderful pumpkin soup with lobster ravioli. It is a real treat!
It’s not as lively as the capital city of Bangkok, but Chiang Mai has excellent spots for a fun night out with friends. Here are my top tips:
- Bus Bar – This quirky bar is in a secluded location and is literally surrounded by buses! It’s right beside the Ping River so it’s a lovely spot to enjoy live music in the open air and if you feel like dancing, hang around for the DJ who arrives later.
- Zoe in Yellow – The perfect backpacker spot that could rival those in southern Thailand. The young crowd that frequents this venue are fun and energetic while dancing to a DJ’s tunes.
- Myst-Maya – This trendy cocktail bar is located on the rooftop of the Maya shopping mall. Apart from awesome views, you’ll find that the mixologists are world class. They have a DJ during the weekend.
Chiang Mai, like much of Thailand, offers incredible accommodations at excellent prices. Here’s where I like to stay:
Become enlightened in Chiang Mai!
- Rarin Jinda Wellness Spa Resort – This welcoming and tranquil hotel has a world-class spa where you can slow down and really enjoy your stay. The spa offers an array of body treatments and free yoga classes.
- Phra Singh Village – This 5-star accommodation is housed in a beautiful and traditional building. Their outdoor pool is the perfect place to relax during the day. In the evenings you can enjoy your in-room hot tub or a drink on your lovely sun terrace.
- Chala Number 6 – This unique property offers a beautiful design and is very comfortable. Their outdoor pool and gardens are relaxing and beautifully maintained.
Chiang Mai has a quiet dignity that marks it out as an ancient seat of power. I highly recommend this beautiful location for a long and relaxing visit!